A Question of Democracy

/ by Don Hoyt Gorman /

Counting down to the election, America's science community is asking itself some deep questions about the interplay between science and politics.

©Photograph by Danny Wilcox Frazier/Redux

With the US Presidential campaign season headed into the party conventions, America’s science community is growing ever-more confident that positive change is on the horizon. There are expectations that funding for research will improve, that tampering with scientific reports will end, and that science will be restored to a position of respectability in Washington.

In the past few years a debate has arisen within American science about the role it ought to play in fostering a better society. The interplay between science and democracy is the kind of philosophical exploration that Sheila Jasanoff, professor of Science and Public Policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, has been observing and writing about for 30 years. In the first of a series of conversations about science, politics, and the coming election, Seed senior editor Don Hoyt Gorman spoke to her about some of the challenges facing American science culture.

Seed: How have you seen the campaigns responding to this surge of political engagement from the American science community?

SJ: Senator Hillary Clinton took the opportunity of the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik to speak at the Carnegie Institution of Washington about what she’d do for science. She said she would restore the integrity of science in Washington, and lift the stem cell funding ban. Clearly her handlers thought from the start that an important speech about science would be an astute and salient thing to do.

Seed: How would you advise the incoming administration on science’s engagement with the democratic process?

SJ: I think the challenge is about democratizing science itself: that is, bringing a sense of democracy back into the ways in which we develop and do science in society. I would say that’s the big challenge for the new administration.

Seed: So you’re suggesting that it’s science, rather than government, that isn’t open and democratic enough?

SJ: We should be thoroughly concerned about aspects of our lives that are being planned and designed in invisible places by experts who we don’t know how to interrogate. We don’t have a delegation or representation where these kinds of ideas are being generated and when decisions are being made. We need better democracy in science.

Seed: How does that play out?

SJ: It means getting people involved and interested in the role that science plays in their lives, not so much interested in the lab process. It’s not about bringing judges into the labs, for instance, so they can be awed by DNA. That’s actually trivializing the issue.

I think we’re missing out on the meaning of this incredibly powerful institution in our lives if we think that the solution is getting more scientists engaged in political campaigns and going out and talking about how enthusiastically they got into science or what science means to their lives. I think that’s a patch compared with the depth at which we ought to be reflecting on how science is altering the very meaning of being human, how science is engaged with our changing relationship with nature, and how science is implicated in fundamental human questions of who we are, who our kin are, who we want to share the world with. Science is right at the heart of all those things.

Seed: How do we go about achieving better democracy in science?

SJ: We should be asking questions about research. Asking questions about, say, 30 years of agricultural biotech development. Why, for instance, was the first product released from that field something like bovine growth hormone? Why, today, in nanotech, are the first products things like skin cream? I’m in favor of these capabilities, but I think we should be engaged in asking questions about these sorts of developments.

Seed: But, of course, our scientific capabilities go far beyond beefing up cattle and exfoliation. We’re not talking about the better understanding of cosmetics. It’s bigger than that.

SJ: Absolutely. We’re talking about huge, global-scale geo-engineering projects. Now, we all ought to know enough about the science to be excited about these projects—but not because they’re science: because they’re about our lives.

Seed: There’s a lot of hope in the US science community right now that things are going to change. Is this idea of restoring the authority of science within American democracy viable?

SJ: In the 1940s, Robert K. Merton suggested that science gets its special authority because of peer review’s “organized skepticism:” Scientists hold each other to higher standards to keep each other honest. In a democratic society, we should all partake in organized skepticism—not just scientists. So I think that a lot of what scientists want to accomplish under the guise of “increased engagement” could easily be termed “building a better democracy.” It’s just good civic virtues.

Originally published May 1, 2008

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